The facts about 3-D TV: Is it really ready?

Vendors are pushing expensive 3-D displays, but the technology may not be as ready as they claim.

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3-D: Who needs it?

That brings us to another issue with 3-D entertainment, one that doesn't get as much discussion in technical circles: the aesthetic and artistic problems that 3-D introduces.

The size and detail of most scenes in a movie, especially on a big screen, create a 3-D effect all their own. Add actual 3-D to that, and you have to make a bevy of additional decisions. How often can you cut without disorienting the audience? What do you keep in focus? One thing? Everything? Do you try to make things pop out of the screen or instead sink into it, as director Werner Herzog plans to do with his upcoming 3-D documentary about the Chauvet cave paintings?

Questions like these, plus the technical problems generated by 3-D, prompted movie critic Roger Ebert to pen an essay for Newsweek where he decried theatrical 3-D as a gimmick. It is a way not just to scalp ticket-buyers out of an extra $5 a head, he declared, but also a way to pressure theater owners into buying the next generation of projection hardware. Critic A.O. Scott of The New York Times stated that 3-D seemed better suited to animation than to live-action, and that the "pop-out holographic effects feel more tacked-on" for "earthbound" 3-D films like Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans.

In other words, a good 2-D movie doesn't need 3-D to make it even better, just as a good black-and-white movie isn't crippled by not having color.

Another possible problem with 3-D is medical, not aesthetic. An associate professor of ophthalmology was quoted on CNN.com as saying that about 20% of viewers who watch 3-D content for prolonged periods of time experience vertigo and nausea.

It's possible to blame some of that on what happens when you take fast-moving content better suited for 2-D and try to show it in 3-D: Viewers can't focus or track what's going on in front of them fast enough, and they become ill. 3-D also seems to be that much more problematic for people who have vision problems like strabismus or who are photosensitive epileptics. The strobing effects created by 3-D glasses may not be noticeable to most people, but those sensitive to it can have everything from headaches to seizures. 3-D TV manufacturer Samsung has issued warnings about this.

Gaming

3-D movies and TV may be an iffy bet, but there's another kind of entertainment that may not only generate more enthusiasm for 3-D but be truly suited to it: video games.

There are several reasons 3-D and gaming are a good fit. The gaming audience is generally receptive to new technology (and typically has the disposable income for it), current-generation consoles and systems can generally support 3-D games and displays with only a firmware upgrade, and games are the kind of experience where 3-D adds something truly useful.

Previous stabs at 3-D gaming, such as 1995's Nintendo Virtual Boy, were clunky because they depended on technology that didn't work anywhere else. The newest gaming systems use the same 3-D system as the TV itself and can piggyback on that technology, just as they did with HD.

As with movies, not every game benefits from being 3-D, but those that do benefit quite a lot. Late last year, at Microsoft's Windows 7 launch in New York, I tried out the PC edition of Batman: Arkham Asylum using an active-shutter 3-D system on a Samsung 120-Hz plasma TV. The 3-D effect was satisfying, if a little dim, and any flickering from the shutters on the glasses was imperceptible.

3-D without glasses

One way 3-D could make major inroads against 2-D is via a display technology that doesn't require glasses. Science fiction has entertained concepts like this for decades -- a holographic image projected into the air, or displayed inside a cube or sphere. Such systems are still a long way off (although a company named SeeReal is working on a holographic 3-D system), but a number of companies are working on 3-D displays that use existing technologies in creative ways.

Most people reading this have seen a form of 3-D called lenticular 3-D, which uses a sheet of plastic lined with vertical grooves as a kind of lens to create a 3-D effect in postcards and public ads. A few companies are working on displays that use variations of this technology. An outfit called CubicVue sells a lenticular filter that is designed to fit over an existing display; the company also says its technology can be embedded in displays, which I imagine would give better results.

Display manufacturers aren't the only ones interested in 3-D sans glasses. Video game titan Nintendo's forthcoming handheld 3DS console is said to sport not only a 3-D display but possibly two cameras as well for player motion-tracking.

Conclusions

There will always be people who are driven to acquire the newest bleeding-edge technology, and those folks have probably already bought a 3-D TV. For the rest of us, it makes sense to wait until some of the kinks have been worked out of home 3-D display technology.

The truth is that 3-D isn't going to replace 2-D -- because there are plenty of reasons to keep 2-D. It's practical, effective and above all cheap. Almost every 3-D technology in existence today comes at a cost premium. Even when the costs fall, it will still be tougher to create 3-D content -- especially original 3-D and not something merely resynthesized from 2-D.

What 3-D has done and will continue to do is create a small but significant market for specialty content. It won't eclipse 2-D but rather will complement it -- the way netbooks and the iPad are flanking and accompanying conventional desktops and notebooks. And the move toward 3-D that doesn't require anything but our own two eyes to see it means the adventure into a new dimension has barely begun.

Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications, including InformationWeek and Windows Magazine.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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